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London’s Earliest Cinema Will Return

posted July 16, 2012

Images: Westminster University
It’s a far cry from 1896, when going to the first British cinema cost from sixpence to a shilling. That was the admission price at Marlborough Hall at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London – now part of Westminster University – when 54 people gathered to watch a Lumière brothers’ film spectacle on a large screen.

The Lumières, Auguste and Louis, had one year earlier invented their cinematograph, the first device that could show movie images to an audience.

Louis Lumiere would famously predict that “the cinema is an invention without a future,” but an undaunted audience viewed 10 short films of 50 seconds each, a program that then toured to great acclaim to New York, Bombay, Montreal, and Buenos Aires.

In a £6-million project, Westminster University is restoring and reopening a late-Victorian hall as the Regent Street Cinema with state-of-the-art projection and sound.

Already, for decades, the Polytechnic had been a focus of newfangled visual shows. Built in 1838, in 1841 the building had become home to Europe’s first photographic studio, and later, magic lantern shows were staged there. Henry Langdon Childe, who came to work at the Polytechnic in 1838, invented a method of illuminating lanterns with lime, rather than oil, so that images could be projected onto a screen from in front rather than from the rear. He also invented a method for creating the “dissolving view” from one slide to another.

Christmas Eve of 1862 saw the premiere of Pepper’s Ghost, a popular optical illusion show by John Pepper and Henry Dircks. (The latter was a Liverpool engineer who created the Dircksian phantasmagoria, an apparatus for creating onstage optical illusions of translucent ghosts.)

For most of the next century it served as an institute of higher education, most recently as part of the University of Westminster. The theater was built into the hall in 1848, and boasted a 1,000-person capacity within its colorful, neoclassical interior. James Thomson, the architect of the original Polytechnic building, designed it, and it became a venue for scientific lectures and the presentation of travel and news shows.

On the strength of those accomplishments, Félicien Trewey, the Lumière brothers’ manager, chose the Polytechnic in 1896 as the natural venue for a cinematograph show. It took place on 20 February 1896, but two weeks later moved to Leicester Square due to popular acclaim.

The Polytechnic theater’s film history continued in the 20th century with the addition, in 1926, of gilded, embossed plaster details. In 1933, the cinema became an institute of higher education in cinematography that offered the United Kingdom’s first courses in film-making. In 1970, it became home to the UK’s first honors-degree film program.

But by that time, the hall had ceased to be used as a cinema.

In 1973, the building, which is situated within London’s central Conservation Area, won preservation listing.

Now, in a £6-million project, Westminster University is restoring and reopening the late-Victorian interior hall as the Regent Street Cinema with state-of-the-art projection and sound. Reopening is scheduled for 2014.

Already restored, since 2002, have been the building’s Grand Entrance Hall and gallery spaces, as well as its historic Compton Organ. Installed at the cinema in 1936, It is one of only two Compton organs functioning in their original locations. Plans for the hall restoration include making its pipework and percussion devices visible to visitors.

In July 2011, the Heritage Lottery Fund provided £100,000 for the project, as well as a promise of £1-million more. The MBI Al Jaber Foundation, funded by Sheikh Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber, has given £1-million, too,as has the Quintin Hogg Trust. The Higher Education Funding Council’s scheme to support philanthropy in higher education has matched donations, and public fundraising efforts are ongoing.

Uses for the restored venue include film screenings, lectures, workshops, and showcases of student films.

Directing the restoration is Tim Ronalds Architects, a London firm established in 1982. It specializes in arts, education, and public projects. Its award-winning projects include Hackney Empire which received a Royal Fine Art Commission/BSkyB Conservation Building of the Year Award.

Westminster has long had a well-regarded film school, with such graduates as producer Paul Tribijts, director Michael Winterbottom, and recent BAFTA award winning director Asif Kapadia.

More information is online in various locations, as is an audio slideshow and an architectural walk-through.

Categories: Features

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